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Dinah Birch

  • Making Peace: The Reconstruction of Gender in Inter-war Britain by Susan Kingsley Kent
    Princeton, 182 pp, £18.95, March 1994, ISBN 0 691 03140 1

Do women want equality? To the militant suffragettes campaigning before August 1914, the answer was self-evident. They wanted equality badly, and were ready to do battle for it. The aggressive action which backed their polemical crusade was designed to demonstrate possession of virtues previously considered to be essentially masculine: the capacity for public action and rational argument, physical courage, a ruthless drive for justice. But the outbreak of what Christabel Pankhurst called ‘the other war’ changed all that. The long nightmare of the trenches meant that neither men nor women could see themselves in the same way. Images of gender fragmented into new and contradictory patterns that shadowed British feminism for decades after the Armistice.

It is commonly thought that working as bus conductors and ambulance drivers during the war earned suffragettes what their pre-war hostilities had failed to achieve. Women’s enfranchisement in 1918 has been seen as a gesture of public recognition of their war effort. Susan Kingsley Kent acknowledges this, but points out that a heavy price was paid for a partial concession. The uncompromising political energies of pre-war feminism were succeeded by a new ideology of separate spheres, in which the emphatic claims for equality which had dominated the work of what were now called the ‘old feminists’ were diverted into new and more conservative channels. Women were not, it seemed, equal – or rather they were equal but different. Some were distinctly more equal than others. The Representation of the People Act of 1918 limited the vote to women over the age of 30, and then only if they were householders or the wives of householders. The same Act granted men what almost amounted to universal suffrage: they needed nothing more than to have an address to claim the right to vote. Nineteen-year-old men were enfranchised if they had served in the armed forces. The suffragettes active before the war had insisted that they would accept the vote for women only on the same terms as it was granted to men. Now they were prepared to tolerate a major enlargement of male suffrage in association with a significantly restricted franchise for women. What feminists worked for in the years which followed – notably family endowment and birth control – rested on the concept that motherhood was the true vocation of women. Cicely Hamilton, redoubtable ‘old feminist’, crossly noted that the protective legislation of the inter-war years treated women ‘from youth to age as if they were permanently pregnant’.

The first reaction to the outbreak of the First World War was the abandonment of the campaign for the vote. There was an immediate retreat to traditional gender roles: ‘The great era of knitting set in; men should fight but women should knit,’ one contemporary activist ruefully recalled. To many, this was a welcome change. Britain seemed to some vociferous observers a corrupt and emasculated society, in which the vigour of feminism signalled a failure of masculinity. The concept of peace itself had become curiously feminised, as though it were a sinister ‘other’ to the masculine norm – ‘an opium-dream of comfort, of ease, of that miserable poltroonery of “the sheltered life” ’, as Edmund Gosse asserted. Captain Wagstaffe, a character in Ian Hay’s The First Hundred Thousand, muses that ‘war is hell, and all that, but it has a good deal to recommend it. It wipes out all the small nuisances of peace-time.’ ‘Suffragism’ is the first nuisance he mentions.

In the late summer of 1914 no one was in a position to understand quite what a hell Europe was about to enter. In the early days, the war presented itself as a stern and necessary reaffirmation of masculine values, at women’s expense. Many areas of women’s employment rapidly evaporated. Before separation allowances came into operation thousands of wives and mothers were left to cope with poverty on their own as their men marched to the front. Meanwhile, widely circulated tales of the Germans’ sexual atrocities against Belgian women underlined the enduring notion of men as the strong protectors of sanctified womanhood, the innocent mothers, sisters and sweethearts waiting anxiously at home. But as the war dragged on, and Rupert Brooke’s celebrated ‘swimmers into cleanness leaping’ found themselves drowning in mud, the pervasive sexual imagery of the war began to change. It became clear that it was men, and not women, who were being destroyed – and in such numbers that their empty places on the Home Front had to be occupied by women. In the summer of 1915, Lloyd George acquiesced to the King’s request that Mrs Pankhurst’s army should be re-mobilised, and donated £2000 from Government funds for a ‘women’s right to serve’ demonstration ‘like those you used to have for the vote’. The interests of the state briefly coincided with those of feminism, as women poured into jobs as munitions workers, agricultural labourers, transport and support staff, military nurses and even – after the calamitous losses of 1916 – auxiliary soldiers. The gender barriers that the war had initially served to confirm began to fall apart under its pressures. Men were disconcerted by the new and often well-paid activities of young women. It is hardly surprising that those serving at the front vehemently resented what must have seemed the good times their wives and sisters were having, for though the wartime tasks for women were often uncomfortable and sometimes dangerous, they were far preferable to those the soldiers were compelled to endure. Britain seemed to be transforming itself into a land of female uniforms, but the young women who strode confidently out in them were not being maimed and obliterated as their brothers were.

The triumph of masculinity began to look more complicated, and more insecure, than it had in 1914. Was it, after all, such a desirable thing to be a man? Some of the most interesting strands in Kent’s composite account of changing minds in the war are drawn from the memories of the women who served at the front, often as ambulance drivers and nurses. The severe domination of masculine values took on a very different appearance in their eyes, as they struggled to ease the misery of the bleeding and mangled bodies. The women who had to witness the helplessness of injured soldiers never forgot it, and never again thought of men just as brutal aggressors, antagonists in a sex war. If the women in uniform were proving themselves to be like men, in the field hospitals men were all too often learning to be like women. They were vulnerable, inarticulate, defined and confined by their existence as bodies rather than minds, the casualties of an oppressive system they had no power to change. They were no longer enviable, nor were they despicable.

The deep anxieties and disruptions created by the war persisted long after its conclusion. The returning soldiers were damaged, humiliated and angry about what had been done to them. They were in no mood for gallantry. The women’s movement no longer quite knew what it wanted. Renewed conflict between the sexes, in the pattern of pre-war militant feminism, now seemed impossible. Women’s employment proved itself as unstable as it had in 1914, as men moved back into their old jobs: according to the census of 1921, fewer women were ‘gainfully employed’ in that year than in 1911. Yet much had changed for good. Neither men nor women could forget that traditional images of masculinity had suffered a catastrophic loss of status. Nor could they forget how uncertain the categories of gender had turned out to be under the stress of war.

Kent makes it clear that the feminists’ retreat from their egalitarian pre-war thinking was not simply the result of a wish to conciliate the embittered men who were struggling to retrieve their former position. After the undreamed-of disasters of a new kind of war, the values of home and family, and the need to protect those values, seemed central in a way that they hadn’t before. War had not only been unimaginably destructive, it had also been a giant madness. Freud and those who followed him theorised irrationality as the fountainhead of human behaviour. No one thought the peace could be permanent. More war was on the way, and the needs of women in an ugly and unpredictable world, rather than their right to share in an age of prosperity and progress, came to dictate the feminist agenda. Maude Royden, editor of the feminist newspaper Common Cause, had in February 1914 demanded complete equality of treatment for men and women in every public and private sphere. In 1923, she was talking about the ‘differences of function’, voicing the new post-war cynicism in contending ‘that the world is too great for us, that the passions created by the war are uncontrollable, that you cannot master your own civilisation.’

In her Introduction, Kent speaks openly and movingly of the genesis of her book in the death of her young niece. Having to confront ‘premature and seemingly random death’, and finding bravery and grace in human endurance informs her reading of feminism in inter-war Britain. The book broods on patterns of accommodation in the face of pain and loss, her personal experience enriching her historical study. Kent judges the cultural conservatism that dominated feminist thought after the Great War to have been a massive mistake. The ideology of separate spheres could not support a coherent or effective feminist movement, and many of the social gains that had been won in earlier years were dissipated. But the purpose of her sombre record is not to reproach or condemn those who subscribed to the ‘new feminism’. The social category of women, like that of men, is always contingent: gender must be understood in relation to the pressures that shape discursive practices within changing cultures. It took the intervention of another world war, one in which the reconstructed differences between women and men were wiped out by technologies that made no distinction between home and front, to create the newly articulate feminism that evolved in the Sixties.

The distinction between ‘old’ and ‘new’ feminism on which Kent’s interpretative model rests has been persistent. Few women now want to deny any aspect of their right to equality, but questions about ways in which that equality might most profitably be defined continue to be asked. Concepts of difference have become positive terms within feminist debate. For women in the Nineties, as for women between the wars, the political and economic context is crucial. Quiet analogies between what happened in Britain between the wars and what is happening today run through Kent’s book. Though an unexpectedly long and grim world recession is by no means the same thing as an unexpectedly long and grim world war, some of its consequences are comparable. The anxiety and dislocation generated by the recession have had profound consequences for the construction of gender in our culture. The suffering has been shared by men and women, but concepts of masculinity have been under particular strain. Traditionally secure roles for men, from miners to middle managers, have disintegrated. Most of the new jobs created since the supposed ending of the recession (still largely invisible) have been part-time, and they have been taken by women. A generation of bewildered and traumatised young men, a good many of them violently resentful of women, cannot see how they are to construct masculine status for themselves within a society in which gender identities have never been more equivocal. Women are again uncertain of what they want. Becoming men hardly seems an attractive option, given what seems to be happening to men, and there are signs of a discernible movement towards a newly defined ideology of separate spheres. The motives are complex: partly the impulse to appease male aggression that is perceived as pervasively threatening, partly a wish to return to an ordered world felt to be more solid than an unreadable future, partly the sense mat the nurturing feminine values of home and motherhood are indeed superior to the muddle, thuggery and sleaze which are now seen to dominate public life in Britain.

Yet the parallel with the inter-war years will not altogether hold. Women have inherited a great deal from the work of many generations of feminism, and even those who are slow to call themselves feminists are not prepared to give up what the women’s movement has earned for them.